War, for Crane, was a favorite metaphor for human life, equally applicable to coal miners (“In the Depths of Coal Mine,” 1894) or to the people living in the slums of New York (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets). Courage and heroism come under Crane’s scrutiny in his classic book about wartime, The Red Badge of Courage. Henry has read classical tales of heroism, and dreams of performing brave deeds on the battlefield, but he is deeply worried about what will happen when the regiment finally goes into action. He and his regiment have marched into northern Virginia, but since then have done nothing but wait. His concern is not “How will we men of the 304th New York Regiment do when we go into battle” but “How will I do?” In the course of his self-questioning, he has been “forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.” Of course, although Henry does not consider it, all the men around him are also worried about the coming battle and how they will behave under fire.
Henry, more often referred to as “the youth,” has a small circle of friends that includes Jim Conklin, “the tall soldier,” whom he has known all his life, and Wilson, “the loud soldier,” who constantly struts and brags. Most characters in the novel remain unnamed except for epithets such as these. Henry’s identification with his companions is not strong enough to give him a sense of community with them. The regiment is often pictured as a powerful organism breathing, snorting, and shooting flames like a dragon.
The regiment goes into action after its long period of inactivity, and although Henry is relieved in a sense, his anxieties soon increase. When the enemy forces make their first charge, Henry’s training helps him perform in the accepted manner; he and the regiment stand their ground, and the enemy is repelled. But all too soon a second charge is under way. The tired men of the 304th Regiment resume firing, but soon many of them throw down their rifles and run. Panic-stricken, Henry also heads for the rear, running “like a blindman” and crashing into trees.
As his panic subsides, Henry rationalizes his desertion: he has behaved in a highly reasonable fashion; he has saved the U.S. government a piece of valuable equipment, himself; and he has followed the dictate of nature, which bids every creature to protect itself. Guilt-ridden despite his rationalizations, Henry falls in with some wounded men who have been forced to seek shelter in the rear. He finds the company of the wounded preferable to that of his own regiment, which he hopes has been soundly defeated, for its defeat would vindicate him completely.
But Henry’s conscience undergoes further assault when he notices a man referred to as a “spectral soldier,” walking as if he were a dead man looking for a grave. Henry suddenly realizes that this mortally wounded soldier is Jim Conklin, his best friend. Henry, hysterical with grief, promises to take care of his friend, but Jim recognizes Henry only for a moment before he shakes off Henry’s hand. In a fit of panic, Jim runs from the road into a field, where he convulses and dies as Henry looks on helplessly.
Henry later suffers a head wound when a frightened deserter unexpectedly hits him with the butt of his rifle. An unnamed friendly soldier leads Henry back to his regiment, where Wilson, previously known as the “loud soldier,” is on sentinel duty. Henry finds that Wilson has matured from a swaggering braggart to a quietly confident soldier. Wilson and the corporal who examine Henry assume that he has been shot. The wound is Henry’s means of entry back into the military society, and he realizes that this is the only society available to him.
After Henry’s cover story has been accepted, his remorse practically disappears. He still worries that his cowardice will be exposed, but his ego has been restored. No longer an isolated wanderer in the company of the wounded and dying, Henry learns to take pride in his regiment and in his own ability to contribute to the war effort. Going into battle he fights like a madman, firing so furiously that he wins the admiration of his fellow soldiers. Henry becomes less self-centered as he begins to identify with Wilson and the other soldiers, and he finds the strength of purpose to atone for his earlier cowardice.
Throughout Henry’s transformation, Crane emphasizes that coming of age involves an awareness of and concern for others. Henry learns that he is a person of contradictory impulses and actions, at times brave, at times cowardly, and this knowledge allows him to identify with the society around him. He thinks of others as well as himself; his is no longer an egocentric universe.
But Crane is careful not to present war as a simple rite of passage; he emphasizes that war brings out the most horrible aspects of life. War indeed tests souls, but in the process it ruins more men than it converts to higher ideals. Although the survivors of war were sometimes stronger, more compassionate men, Crane could never reconcile this phenomenon with the horror and the suffering of innocent creatures everywhere. Henry is able to change, but Crane himself never came to terms with a God who could tolerate wars.